An educator’s thoughts while #socialdistancing

On our fourth morning of having no school due to Coronavirus, I woke up extra early in hopes of getting some work done for a graduate class I’m currently taking.  Prior to the outbreak, my usual routine would be to stay up late and do my work while the house was quiet.  Since schools have been closed, I flipped it and have been doing my reading and writing before the kids wake up.

We’ve been following a daily schedule that I found posted by a trusted colleague on social media and it has been working in the sense of giving our family a sense of purpose during the day.  I’ve been sharing pics from our time outside with followers on social media just to spread the word and connect with other friends and families, as we are all in this together.

So this morning, I found myself doing something strangely familiar….

Instead of reading the largely bad news in the news about the spread of the coronavirus, as a kind of warm up while the coffee was brewing, I started with checking email from work.  I was very happy to find this week’s edition of The Marshall Memo waiting for me.  This is a wonderful resource for busy educators to help keep connected to trends and research in the field.  This week it focused on educational resources for educators who are also parents!  After three days of being teacher-in-chief of my own kids–first, fifth and seventh graders–I began to feel like I was ignoring my own experience as a professional educator.  I found myself wanting to offer them more personalized tasks to complete during our academic time on the daily schedule.  The Marshall Memo was a treasure trove.  This will help compliment the wonderful resources being sent home from their schools.  Both principals–in addition to our superintendent–have communicated frequently this week in genuine attempts to help keep parents in the loop and hopefully keep the kids connected to their schools.  Just knowing that teachers and school leaders are still there for my kids puts me at ease.  While there is no way to replicate what happens in school, it’s great when I see my older kids checking google classroom and reading messages from their teachers.  Having teachers continuing to be a presence in my kids’ lives helps me as the keeper of the home schedule to motivate my kids to do academic work for a few hours a day.

As the news comes out daily and the restrictions become more severe in response, parents may feel overwhelmed at times.  That is what is driving me to wake up early to plan out the activities for the day!  Be sure to do something together each day.  On rainy days it is even more of a challenge for us, but we found some free yoga lessons on TV that we have been doing as a family and doing yoga together has become fun and something we all look forward to doing.  On days with better weather, we go out for long walks together a couple times a day.  Now that we are no longer allowed to visit local playgrounds or playing fields, we have discovered trails managed by Mass DCR and Mass Audubon Society.  To get out into the woods, to listen to the sounds of nature, and to see how the signs of rebirth and renewal in nature are very the perfect antidote for the uncertainty and worry that is all around us.

As we distance ourselves socially from our friends and colleagues, let’s take stock in the blessings we have in front of us.  Rather than focus on all the things we cannot do in these challenging times, let’s focus on what we have right in front of us.  Let’s show them how to enjoy spending time together, how to keep a positive attitude, how to be curious, how to build resiliency in mind and body, and how to live in the moment.

I would love to hear from you with your thoughts about this post.




If you didn’t get a chance to attend this incredible conference, here are some digital footprints that I’ve collected to help capture the spirit of Day 1 of MassCUE18.

The morning started with 3 Keynotes, which were each very inspiring.  Attendees added thoughts, images and notes to #masscue18 on Twitter.  I’ve collected a sampling of Tweets posted during or shortly after the first day’s keynotes using Wakely:

After the keynotes, the classroom sessions began.  There were dozens of workshops to choose from.  My highlights for the day are the following:

The educators from our district were invited to the field for a group photo and that was pretty cool:


In the end, it was a valuable day to re-connect with colleagues from within the district and from around the commonwealth, learn some current best practices around working in a technology-rich environment with students and teachers, and be inspired by the thoughts and words of some pretty amazing keynote speakers.  All of that, and unlimited free coffee, a variety of really friendly vendors whose products can enrich your learning environment, and some good ice cream!

Making Time for Professional Growth #MSSAASI

In today’s busy world, it takes a lot of energy to prioritize and execute a to-do list filled with our work, family, and social responsibilities.  As professional educators we often leave our own professional growth and development to our district leaders to figure out for us.  Some of us engage in professional learning networks on social media and that recharges the batteries for us to keep us running full throttle during the school year.  One way I’ve taken a more active role in my own professional growth since becoming a school administrator is to join Massachusetts Secondary Schools Administrator’s Association.  If you too are a busy educator who yearns for high quality professional learning opportunities outside of your own school or district, I highly recommend seeking our your local branch of your national organization, whether it’s NCTE, ACTFL, NASSP, NCTE, NCHE, ASCD or ISTE, these organizations help to connect you to other educators to expand your own professional network while also providing you access to conferences geared towards personalized learning.

This week, I attended a conference called Summer Institute by MSSAA.

Not only did I have a chance to connect with some truly inspiring educators, many of whom I follow on Twitter, but I also got to attend workshops that helped push my thinking on how to engage with students, teachers, and parents as an assistant principal.

Here are my notes from three workshops I attended over the past two days:

This morning (DAY #2) I attended another workshop entitled, “The Alchemy of Social Media: Prioritizing Relationships to Nurture Whole School Community through Legacy Building.”  I know the title is a mouthful, but it really captures the entire hour discussion hosted by Marty Geoghegan and Brian McCann.  In their workshop they discussed how as school leaders they have experimented using social media and in doing so have created gold.

Sometimes as educators we spend so much time in our respective buildings working our to-do lists, solving problems and organizing events and activities, that we lose sight of what’s happening in the field of education at large.  We also can tend to feel cut off from educators in other schools and districts.  Ever since I started this journey as an educator who connects with a Personal Learning Network on Twitter and as a blogger, I’ve discovered that there’s no better way to find inspiration than to put yourself out there on social media and engage with peers and colleagues both within and without of your district.  I’m grateful to my superiors in my home district for supporting me in my desire to attend this conference as a professional development activity.  I’ve spent two days with a whole community of leaders in education, and I feel reinvigorated to return to my school and get to work on the new school year.  Please take some time to read through my notes from the workshops posted above and explore the links to the educators I’ve mentioned.  If you appreciate what you see, please follow them on Twitter and on their blogs.

If you would like to connect with me and become part of my PLN, please follow this blog and/or follow me on Twitter.



At the start of National AP Appreciation week, the MSSAA hosted this day of professional learning for Assistant Principals around the state of Massachusetts at the Doubletree Hotel in MIlford.  Dr. Henry Turner, Principal of Bedford High School, was the keynote speaker.  He acknowledge that “APs and school secretaries are the real people who run schools.”  He gave the crowd of about 120 people the ground rules for the Edcamp model, including “vote with your feet” and “good conversation and good coffee.”  He challenged all participants to use today to challenge the way you think to try to discover new ways of doing things or improve practice that you’re already committed to.  The more diverse the group of people you invite into the discussion, the richer the discussion will be.  Henry’s message was very eloquent and deep that if you take a risk by sharing, you will grow your own professional learning network that will keep on giving.

“If you want to go fast, go alone.  If you want to go far, go together.” African Proverb.

Henry’s main recommendations if you want to bring Edcamp to your school to push forward from the PD model into the Professional Learning model are to start small and keep it focused on your learners.

After Henry’s presentation, our participant proposed topics for the breakout discussions by  building the board of discussions for the day posted here.

We moved into a presentation by Deb & Dana Hult of Core Trainings.  They politely asked us all to close the laptops and put away the devices so we could do the hard work of making personal connections with our team.  We had a very fun activity of building a tower with uncooked spaghetti and marshmallows.  It was a blast!

The sessions I attended were very productive.  All the notes for every session can be accessed on the MAIN BOARD, set up by Mary Anne Moran

Thanks to the MSSAA for putting on this great day of Professional Learning and Networking!


What I learned at #LFL16

    Today I was a participant and a presenter at Leading Future Learning at Holy Cross in Worcester. The day began by hiking up numerous pathways and stairs trying to find Hogan Hall on this beautiful campus. Once I found the space, I was greeting by a friendly familiar face at the registration and then I found a spot at a table with my teammates With whom I will be presenting in the afternoon. As the keynote started, I was please the Caitlin Krause began her presentation by doing some exercises to remind us to be in the moment. This was especially helpful to me as my mind was racing with the inevitable swirl of details from work, all the loose ends that I was unable to tie up at the end of the workday yesterday. The whole purpose for me to attend this conference was to step away from my school for the day and connect with and learn from educators from around Massachusetts about how to effectively use social media in schools today. I wanted to be able to bring back what I learned to my team and my colleagues in a way that is productive and supported by best-practices. With all this on my mind it was so important to hear Caitlin’s message of being in the moment and to practice the meditative exercises she began with. It was funny to look around the room and see a room full of tech-savvy educators with their devices blazing before then breathing in and breathing out in an attempt to be in the moment! Is this even possible in this day and age of hyper connectivity?  But Caitlin’s wonderful presentation took this question head on and reminded us all that what makes an educators job so powerful is leveraging the power of community-building in class and using technology to help amplify the quieter voices to a global audience that becomes a part of a student’s individual learning network. 

The first session I attended was put on by colleagues from the Sharon school district about how to create a living, kid-friendly AUP that helps teachers teach digital citizenship. It was very cool to hear how the district approaches the Acceptable Use policy as a teaching tool that is layered and revisited and built upon each year in students’ lives, helping inform parents as well of the snares and potential pitfalls their kids might experience in their use of digital tools. 

The second session I attended was put on by a panel of Twitter using leaders, Pat Larkin, Brian McCann, Jim Adams and John Clements entitled “Embracing Social Media in Schools.” The panelists discussed how to create proactive policies and how to use social media to build relationships that create the fabric of the culture of the school and district. They took questions from the audience such as “When do devices become a distraction to learning? How do you get your tech folks to let down the blocks?  How do you teach kids how to be responsible citizens? How do you create PD opportunities to help engage staff and develop their own skills?

In the afternoon I attended a session on social media for PD with Jonathan Werner. He is great and shared his resources with us. This session was very upbeat and fast-past with a very slick presentation that hit on the idea that we have to re-think the paradigm of PD. He introduced me to Teachers teaching teachers as a model (#ttt). 

I had the honor of also serving as a presenter at this conference! When I saw the call for proposals for this conference back in the fall, I thought I would love to bring together a panel of school leaders who are social media users. I went on Twitter and invited a few school admins to work with me. I was for fortunate to collaborate with Tom Bresnahan, Brian McCann, Bill Burkhead, and Bill Chaplin. We used Twitter direct messaging to flesh out ideas and the worked on a shared Google doc to plan out our session which I used in creating the proposal. The two Bills ended up being pulled away from attending the event, but their collaboration on the bones of our session was essential. As I sit now waiting for our session to begin, I’m excited about being able to lead a discussion with school leaders about how to navigate through the social media “Shark Tank”.  Follow our discussion here: #LFLTank2016 

In conclusion, what I take away was a great opportunity to touch base with the real people behind some of social media accounts I follow. At its essence, bolstered by the message of its morning keynote speaker, Leading Future Learning 2016 is a collegial activity to contribute to  a professional network of educators who believe in technology. 

Here’s a photo of the Sharks at the debrief session:


Building Capacity

As I was running yesterday morning through the woods, I reflected on how grateful I am to work on a team where there is a strong spirit of collaboration. We are in our self-study year for our NEASC accreditation cycle and we are lucky to have many classroom teachers stepping up to chair the many committee posts that are needed to complete the self-study report. Teachers have their hands full with their primary roles in the classroom. When they volunteer to help out on initiatives that impact the whole building, they are also inadvertently taking on leadership roles, or building leadership capacity. Leadership capacity is vital to affecting positive school change as the more people who participate in the discussion of how to improve our practices inside and outside the classroom, the more authentic the change will be. When more stakeholders participate in the discussion and in the ideas that spring from that discussion, the more vital and necessary the work becomes. When all of us who work in schools bring the mindset of “how can I help to make this a better school?” we contribute to building leadership capacity.

School leaders should try to foster leadership capacity in their staff by encouraging collaborative problem solving and sharing best practices. As teachers improve their classroom practices through reflective collaboration with colleagues, they can turn their focus to addressing building-wide issues. Leaders cannot mandate the solutions to persistent or pervasive problems. They have to rely on building the culture of leadership capacity that allows for addressing problems on the grassroots level.

Looking back at my own career, I see that I developed most of the skills I utilize every day in my role as an assistant principal when I was a teacher. I was fortunate enough to work in a school where leadership was shared and teachers were empowered to take responsibly for making progressive change. When enough people agreed on identifying a problem, they would partner with administration and develop a plan of action to address the issue. The actions didn’t always immediately work, but at least people were on board with the effort.

When stakeholders invest in the effort of school change, their actions make them invested in the school. I would not have gone into leadership, if I didn’t feel that leadership was already something I was doing as an invested teacher. I am grateful to the leaders with whom I have worked because they built leadership capacity in me by giving me a seat at the table where issues were discussed and plans were made to address the issues.

Who has encouraged you to take on leadership capacity?


One Month In–A Reflection #SAVMP

Now that I have done the job of Assistant Principal for one whole month now, I felt it was about time to stop and reflect a little.  In my first month on the job, I’ve thought of lots of topics to blog about on my ride to and from work, but I haven’t been able to find the energy to sit at the computer and write after 8 pm.  My days have been starting early and after we get the kids in bed, I feel wrecked and putting together coherent thought becomes nearly impossible.

I sit down tonight, thanks in large part to a role model and mentor, who I actually never met in person. I’m blogging tonight because George Couros sent me a “gentle nudge” in his latest blog post.  That’s part of the beauty of being connected to a worldwide PLN of educators!  If you listen closely, you’re bound to find someone whose wisdom inspires you.  Even if I haven’t posted many updates to my blog since starting the new job as an AP, I’ve stayed connected on twitter to my PLN and to my mentor and cohort in the #SAVMP program, Alan Sakai, Adam Holman, & Cindy Wallace.

So, here goes.  I hope that in sharing these reflections I spark a conversation with any and all who read this.  In addition, I want to reach out to the educators at my school and give them some insight into how my thinking informs my actions at school.  We are always busy at school and there never seems to be enough time to engage in thoughtful discussion with teachers.  This blog is my attempt at doing that.

Student discipline

This is the part of the job that has surprised me the most.  My first few days, I found it tedious to have to constantly refer to the code of conduct to make sure I matched appropriate consequences to the infraction.  This is always an issue, but what I have enjoyed is the discussion with students as I am giving out discipline.  I like that I get a chance to establish a relationship with each student who enters my office.  I try to see the person behind the behavior and I try to listen to what’s prompting them to break rules.  I’ve already had to deal with some difficult situations, but I’ve tried to remain non-judgmental and supportive of the student.  I’ve spent a lot of time on the phone with parents and they too have been appreciative of my approach.  The challenge that I face is how to remain supportive of students who keep making the same mistakes.  As a father, I occasionally find that my kids play tug-of-war with my last thread of patience, and I might lose my temper now and again. As an AP, I must be a zen master and always maintain a reserve of patience so that students see me as trustworthy and fair.  I feel like writing this blog helps me do that.

Instructional Leadership

I have been zeroing in on my own student learning goals and professional practice goals that will be in my own evaluation.  I am slowly trying to develop a network with educators in my building through face-to-face conversations and through social media like Twitter and Edmodo.  I’ve started a Twitter hashtag (#naedcon) that I hope educators in my district will use to share ideas and curate information that inspires innovation.  I have to be patient and persistent in pushing this hashtag as I try to engage with the educators who currently use social media and set my sights on getting people to start using social media for classroom and professional development uses.  I’ve reserved a domain name in edmodo as another way to connect and engage with teachers in my new school.  This will hopefully allow me to stay current on the kind of work students are doing in classroom across our school, even if right now, I’m still just connecting with teachers and haven’t yet gained access into the classroom groups that teachers have set up.  I first want to make sure that teachers and students are comfortable with visitors in their online spaces.


I was inspired by Justin Baeder’s Instructional Leadership Challenge and I started the school year off by doing at least five walk-throughs a day.  While I don’t get a chance to write up at least one observation per day, I have been steadily visiting five to ten classrooms a day just to pop in and say hello to teachers and students.  I still would like to spend an hour a day doing walk-throughs of at least ten minutes each, just to get a better sense of the pedagogy in the building.  So far, teachers have been very welcoming and I’ve appreciated the spirit of collegiality that exists in the building.

Time management

I have implemented the Franklin-Covey organizational system to help me prioritize tasks, schedule weekly and daily.  I’m not a guru at it yet, but I can feel that prioritizing and scheduling are becoming more of a second nature.  This is aspect of the job is a big shift from being in the classroom where time was a constant and was always very predictable.  I’ve learned so far that you can never control time; rather you can only seek to budget it among the relationships and tasks that require your attention.

Family time

Even though I had to sacrifice a portion of my weekend time to work–I didn’t get to read my kids a bedtime story tonight as I hastened in vain to finish this post–I feel that spending time with family renews my spirit, even as it depletes my energy.  I constantly remind myself that my kids are my big picture that I have to be the kind of dad I want to be today in each moment.  There is no delaying on this.  When I come home and my brain feels like jello, I have to follow the prime rule of improvisation and just say yes when my son asks if I want to throw the football around or my daughter asks if we can go get an ice cream.  Actors who study improvisation will tell you that when you accept an offer, you open the scene up to unlimited possibility.  When you stay connected to your scene partners and say yes to every invitation, the scene becomes a thing of beauty that is bigger than the individual actors.

As I enter my second month on the job as an assistant principal, I take stock in wonders of improvisation.  Even though my to do list is lengthy and my time between appointments is tight, I have to revel in the unlimited possibility for improvisation in this job.  As the improvisational actor knows, you have to think on your toes, stay connected to your partners, and, above all, always accept what is offered.  I chose the diagram above because those tenets apply just as well to being a good educator.  As I look forward to my second month on the job, I’m ready to suspend judgement, let go of my agenda, listen in order to receive, build on what I receive, make my colleagues look brilliant, and serve the bigger picture.

Are you with me?

(Re)Collections #1

itunes9iconLots of career teachers look at technology with a curious fear.  They would like to try out a new technology in the classroom, but they fear not being in control or being the expert that their students, parents, and evaluators expect them to be.  We who have been teaching 10+ years might look with a bit of fascinated envy at our newer colleagues as they seamlessly integrate the latest and greatest apps and websites that the internet has to offer into their teaching routines.  We mistakingly think that those newer colleagues were born so skilled and that we missed the boat.  This is not the case.  It is never too late learn and if you don’t believe that then, well perhaps you should take that sabbatical leave that you have been thinking about and get yourself enrolled in a good graduate program.

Remember when iTunes was new and all the rage?  The icon spoke to people of my generation who had painstakingly collected our music on CDs.  The wizards at apple had to concoct an incredible potion to get us to use iTunes, first by allowing us to rip our CDs into the player, and then enticing us to purchase new music from their store.  Because my first Apple product was my school issued laptop, I experimented with iTunes on my work computer.  I invested hours of my nights and weekends, probably procrastinating reading & grading the piles of student essays that weigh heavily on the minds of English teachers everywhere, ripping my music CDs into the application.

Looking back, I never thought that doing this would make me any kind of innovator in the classroom.  As a matter of fact, I probably considered myself a bit of a slacker for doing this instead of using the school-issued laptop to do something more “productive.”  I did it because I loved music and I wanted to be able to listen to any song in my collection during passing time, during advisory period, during my preps, or before/after school.  It was a completely selfish move.

But in looking out for myself and experimenting with a new technology, I began to feel more confident with other applications on my mac and I began to open myself up to my students so they could get to know me better.  Giving my students the chance to see and hear my own personal music collection, they found ways to connect with me and began to see me as someone more like themselves.  My students used to hurry to my classroom well before the late bell so they could listen to the song I would be playing, and eventually, I would let them peruse my collection and choose the songs that they wanted to hear.  Because of this little bit of personal use of the work machine, I saw one of my early classroom management problems–getting kids in their seats and ready to learn at the start of the period–melt away.

I had one really close call with my administration early on.  It was the after advisory period when our schedule permitted students a ten minute passing time to get to their third class on Fridays.  The year was 2004 and it was my second year at Newton South.  I had survived the first year, but the second year is key because in Massachusetts a new teacher has three years to attain Professional Teacher Status.  I had just finished teaching two blocks in a row of rambunctuous freshmen and after advisory, I hurried down the hall to refill my cup with some hot coffee that I knew I would need for my most rambuctuous classes which was on their way to me after advisory.  During advisory, I had allowed my students to choose songs from my laptop-based iTunes and pip them through the little speaker in the overhead LCD projector.  (Yes, I was fortunate to work in a district that invested in early in the kinds of technologies that we all take for granted now, but I assure you, then, the overhead projectors served mostly as high tech chalkboards.)  Because advisory was a very well-behaved group of about 11 students, I was very comfortable allowing them to listen to my music while they relaxed for the 15-minute period.  When I said goodbye to them, one of my favorite songs was on, so I just let it play, at a pretty good level of volume, as I walked out coffee cup in hand.  I thought I could beat my next class back.  My rookie mistake was thinking that there would be fresh coffee in the communal pot by the end of second period.  Of course, it was empty, so I had to make a new one, which took up most of passing time.  I waited and poured myself a fresh cup and walked back down the hall to my room.  As I got within earshot of my room, I heard music blasting from my room.  Next time, I resolved to shut down iTunes before leaving class during passing time.  As I entered my room with about a ten seconds to spare in passing time, my third period class was in full attendance and not one of them was seated.  My class looked like a mall on Saturday afternoon, with freshmen being freshmen in all their vocal splendor.  I made a beeline to my laptop and quickly killed iTunes, as I cursed myself for loading The Cult on my work computer.  Turning to face my class, all of whom are out of their seats talking, I notice that there are two people seated near the back of the room–my principal and his guest for the day, the superintendent of schools.  Gulp.  Don’t lose your cool I tell myself.  It’s not the students’ fault that the room is so disorderly, it is entirely mine, so I’ve got to rectify that immediately.  As the bell sounded, I sat calmly at my usual place in front of the room, smiled, and asked my students to take their seats and come to order.  I’m not sure if any of them noticed the visitors, maybe they did, but I like to think of this story as my discovery of my teaching mojo, because they all did exactly what I asked them and within about eight seconds, I was beginning my lesson.  My students continued to wow me with their focus and their enthusiasm for our subject, which was a new unit on writing a literary analysis paper on Romeo and Juliet, which we had just spend the last six weeks studying.  About half-way through the period, satisfied with what they came to see, my visitors quietly exited the room.  The following school year, I was granted PTS and I had the superintendent’s son in my class!

Our main goal in the classroom is to increase student engagement.  Technology will not do that for us by itself.  We have to be ourselves in front of our students.  So if you desire to try out a new technology in your classroom this coming school year, I suggest using that technology for your personal use first.  Get to know it, get to know what you like about it.  Use it and if you begin to like it, bring it into your classroom.  Be yourself and don’t worry about not appearing the expert in front of your class. Take a risk and just use it.

You’ve got lots of support all around you and by using that new piece of technology, you may discover more about yourself and your teaching mojo than you ever imagined.  Just take the leap.

I hope that by the end of next school year, you’ve also got a collection of new tools and best of all, a bunch of recollections that your next group of students will find endlessly appealing.



It has been two days since the unimaginable happened at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. As an adult who was living and working in Manhattan in September of 2001, I still had a hard time making sense of the senseless act of terrorism that touched us all two days ago. I can’t imagine how confusing it must be for children.
Today we went in to Boston with our friends the Goldings (@wjoegolding ) to watch @BigAppleCircus at Government Center. On the T in, we talked about how to talk to the kids about the bombings and even though we are modern parents, it is hard to figure out just what to say. We took comfort in knowing that our kids are still too young.
I empathize with all parents right now. What just happened here in Boston, while confusing and heartbreaking, is an important learning experience for our kids.
I am proud of the way my community has responded to the terror. Walking through the streets of Boston today, just a few blocks from Copley Square, I was heartened to see families out enjoying the beautiful spring day in the Common. I was reassured to see police officers from all over the Commonwealth on patrol in the city. I was inspired to feel a sense of togetherness among fellow citizens who seemed to be looking out for the safety and wellbeing of my kids as we commuted in on the Orange Line and walked through Downtown Crossing to get to the circus.
As we sat mesmerized by the wonderful acrobatic skill, the seemingly effortless synchronicity, and the good natured humor of the circus, I couldn’t help but feel proud to be a member of such a resilient and strong community.
While we deplore the actions of whoever caused this tragedy, we are not jumping to knee jerk reactions and blaming groups of people. We appreciate the shows of support and solidarity from our friends and sometimes rivals around the country and the world. We understand that the there are some people in the world who have succumbed to malevolence, but that we cannot allow them to pull us down into the mire with their hateful actions. We understand that our only way forward is to rely on our instinct of togetherness that this kind of event inspired in us. We can be proud of ourselves for the way so many people ran towards the blasts to help in whatever way they could. We can be proud of the way the community rallied to aid the injured and comfort the families of those killed by this senseless act of terrorism. We can be proud of the way this event makes us feel closer and more concerned for the safety our neighbors.
That’s why I am proud to live in the Boston metropolitan area and that’s what it means to me to be #BostonStrong.


The illusion of multitasking

Last Thursday morning before leaving for school, I was ironing my shirt in the kitchen while listening to WBUR on my NPR app on my  iPad.  I do this often, listening to the news while I get ready for the day, before anyone else in my family is awake.  If I don’t catch a few news stories, then I spend ten minutes or so reading blog posts linked to my Twitter feed.  If I don’t set aside some time in the beginning of the day for news and information, I rarely find the time later.

As I creased and pressed my shirt that morning, I became rapt to a story written by Kurt Nickisch entitled “The Perils and Evolving Promise of Multitasking.”  I link it here to my own peril.  I want you to read/hear this story, but at the same time, I want you to remain and read what I am about to write.  In the end, it is beyond my control.  You will have to decide.

The story addressed concerns I’ve heard a lot this year from my students regarding technology.  My students, mainly my juniors, understand the power of technology and are willing and able to use it as a learning tool.  At the same time, however, many of them report that often technology distracts them from their educational purposes and leads to their spending way more time doing nightly homework.  I acknowledge this concern as well, but I believe in my gut that it is my duty to build technology in the context of classroom learning.  It would be far easier to block out the distraction that handheld devices pose and revert back to “traditional” chalk and talk in the classroom.  I understand and empathize with my colleagues who do not allow students to use their smartphones in class.  I tell my students all the time that I absolutely love the literature that we are studying–Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Orwell’s 1984 among others–and nothing would be easier for me than to sit in front of them daily and lecture about the subtleties of this masterpieces.  In fact, I do a lot of talking during class.  But to hedge against my inner desires to morph into a college English professor, I employ technology to give students agency to create new experiences and meaning from their interactions with these great books.

How do I do this, you ask?

First off, I publish my daily agenda on our class social network, edmodo, before class.  As soon as I post it, students get an alert on their smartphones.  I usually try to schedule these posts to go live right as the bell rings to end the previous class, so I am not the cause of distraction in a colleague’s class.

Here’s a sample agenda for my B block junior class from last week, actually from the morning I heard the story on multitasking.  You will see by clicking the link that this is a standard English class-type of activity.  I give students a writing prompt to start the lesson, which they do in an old-fashioned notebook.  Then I put pair them up and have them discuss the reading from the night before, in this case, it was Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise” Speech.  We then move from small group discussion to whole class discussion and then I give them some written homework based on what they discussed in class. The technology, though used only during the hw portion of the lesson, is actually central to the learning objective which appears embedded in the agenda as “What are the positive and negative aspects of Washington’s key ideas in the speech?”  If I did not use technology in this lesson, I would have had students answer that question in writing for hw.  I would have collected it the next day, read it over the weekend, and given it back to them four or five days later.  Because I asked students to post the highlights of their classroom discussion on a common Google doc, I was able to monitor the Google doc as they did it.  The next day in class, I had a clear idea of which parts of the text students grasped well and which parts needed further discussion.  In this way, technology became part of my formative assessment, which is how we evaluate students’ progress on their way towards the mastery objectives, which will be evaluated in a summative assessment.  If you take some time to look at the agenda, read the speech, and o peruse the Google doc with my students’ analysis of key quotations in the speech, you can evaluate for yourself the understanding that is exhibited.

As you can see, the classroom experience for students involves reading, asking questions, writing, building meaning through large and small group discussion.  These are perennial activities in all high school English classrooms.  Being a “connected educator,” I am not trying to subvert the tried and true methods of teaching.  Believing it my duty to “integrate technology into my classroom,” I am not merely trying to keep them busy with electronic gadgets.  Allowing my students to have and utilize their e-devices during class, I am not opening a Pandora’s box of distraction.  I am giving students opportunities to use technology in real-world settings.  As high school students, the classroom is their “real world” and so they must learn how to manage their attention span, figure out for themselves when it is appropriate to switch the device off, and most importantly leverage technology to work collaboratively with their colleagues in ways that we adults never did when we were in school.

Technology can be a distraction.  I too am allured by the “illusion of multitasking,” that feeling that quantity of information is better than quality.  But I know better.  I wanted to write this blog post for six days.  For six days, it has been in my head, waiting for my full attention.  It wasn’t my highest priority, until this evening.

When I ask students to use technology as part of their experience in my English class, I am hoping that through this experience, they will become more self-aware about how they can best leverage the power of technology.  I am not trying to get them addicted to electronic devices or feed their desire to be connected to thousands of “friends” all at once.  They need our help to figure when and how it works for them.  If we constantly yell at them to “put that thing away,” we are not helping them.  The user needs to develop that self-awareness.

I was able to finish ironing my shirt and get to school safely the day I heard the story about the perils of multitasking.  I was able to devote my time and attention to  my students, my colleagues, my school, and my family in the week since I thought about writing this blog post.  I know when I must put away my iPhone.

You, if you got this far, also understand the benefits of using technology to connect to people and ideas.  You understand that reading this blog and many others is an important part of engaging in the education of your children.  You know deep down that technology has unlimited potential for learning and unlimited potential for distracting.  The only way to unlock that learning potential is to help young people recognize that multitasking is an illusion.

We can’t do this on our own!  We have to work together.  You might start by viewing this short video interview with your student and having a chat about figuring out the right balance for oneself.

Please let me know what you think and/or how that discussion goes…